20 Feet From Stardom goes behind the music

Backup singers grab the spotlight in this hummable doc.

20 Feet From Stardom opens with Bruce Springsteen discussing what it takes to transition from backup singer to star of the show. It’s only a few feet from the rear of the stage to up front under the spotlight, but as The Boss points out, making that walk requires more than fancy footwork. You’re going to need a sizable ego, a healthy amount of narcissism and a drive to succeed that allows you to sacrifice that which others would not.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise when I tell you that the women profiled in 20 Feet From Stardom — all of them voices you’ll remember, but names you may have never heard before — come across as normal people who just happen to have an amazing gift. These singers are all talented, but they lack some indefinable magic that turns an ordinary singer into the main attraction. Well, all of them except for Darlene Love, who clearly was and is a star.

Love is best known for her work on 1960s hits like “Da Do Ron Ron,” “He’s a Rebel” and “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” which the singer has performed on David Letterman’s last show before the holiday every year since 1986. (Film fans will also remember her as Murtaugh’s wife in the Lethal Weapon movies.) Love is something of a force of nature, but her career nearly ended thanks to Phil Spector, who kept Love under contract working on many of his biggest hits, but also routinely denied the singer credit for that work and undermined her attempted jump from backup to lead. Love ended up quitting music and cleaning houses for a time before making a comeback in the 1980s that has sustained to the present day.

Stardom makes it clear that Love’s success is rare, but her struggle is all too common, and profiles other notable backup singers to illustrate the point. There’s Merry Clayton, the indelible female voice on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” (her anecdote about the recording session is priceless) and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”; Claudia Lennear, who sang with Ike and Tina Turner and Joe Cocker, and is reputed to be the inspiration behind the Stones’ “Brown Sugar”; and Judith Hill, who worked with Michael Jackson (she was set to be the singer’s main backup on the This Is It tour before MJ prematurely headed for the Neverland ranch in the sky) and Stevie Wonder, but now dreams of a solo career.

These women are all incredibly talented, but they lack something. What? The filmmakers point to personality, happenstance and a fickle public as the missing links. I noted that almost everyone profiled is female and black, a fact that is never touched on by the interview subjects. That seems like an oversight, with sexism and racism an elephant in the room that no one ever seems to acknowledge. If there’s one big knock on Stardom, it’s that it never digs too deep into its subjects, relying on memorable anecdotes, celeb pontificating and great music to carry the day.

But when the songs and personalities are this terrific, it’s enough. It also helps that these women rubbed elbows with some of the biggest names in music history and have the surprising, hilarious and maddening stories to prove it. Stardom is a must-see for music lovers of all ages, but especially those who remember the 1960s and ’70s scene, the heyday of the backup singer. In many ways, this film is their eulogy. As one talking head explains late in Stardom, there’s no place for talented backups in today’s Pro Tools-dominated music production, which is sad since it’s the humanity of the performers that makes good tunes great. These singers put their humanity on full display, and that’s a beautiful thing.

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